Hypable spoke to two of the actresses who’ve been with Puffs from the very beginning, but are about to hang up their black-and-yellow scarves. We can also exclusively reveal their replacements!
Two and a half years ago, a scrappy group of improv actors and Harry Potter geeks put on a show about Hufflepuffs at the People’s Improv Theater (PIT) in New York City. It was meant to run for five performances – with any luck, maybe they would get extended for another five.
The rest, as they say, is history. Puffs kept extending for seven months, then transferred to an Off-Broadway theater, and then to another Off-Broadway theater. It became the first Off-Broadway show to be filmed and broadcast in movie theaters nationwide by Fathom Events. It’s launching an Australian production.
And remarkably, give or take a switch of Cedric Diggory two years ago, the entire original cast has remained with the show for two and a half years.
But all good things must come to an end, and original cast members will now begin departing. The first two to leave will be Julie Ann Earls (who plays Megan Jones) and Eleanor Philips (who plays a host of roles including Hannah Abbott, Xavia Jones, and Professors Dumbledore, McGonagall, Sprout, and Trelawney).
Having seen the show a dozen times, it cannot be understated how much they bring to their roles. Earls perfectly captures the slowly-emerging Hufflepuff heart underneath Megan’s badass exterior, while Philips leaves audiences roaring with laughter at her spot-on impressions of the Hogwarts faculty.
The two ladies will depart later this month; May 19 will be their final performance. We spoke to them about their time with Puffs, kissing techniques, and loving James Marsden.
Irvin Khaytman (IK): What has being a part of Puffs meant to you?
Julie Ann Earls (JAE): Oh my god, where to begin? I think what it’s meant to me most is [a chance to] create something [where] you really care about the people, and you believe in the story. It brings joy to people but also has a deeper message. I’m amazed at how much the show has grown: the work was good and the story was good and we all worked well together … it was the perfect storm to make what Puffs is. I’m so proud. Also, it’s like the most unique thing. Who can say that they started doing a show at a comedy theater and then it went Off-Broadway, and now it’s international? And now it’s filmed, and who knows where it’ll go after that!
Eleanor Philips (EP): Being a part of Puffs has been kind of the coolest thing I’ve ever done. I remember when Matt [Cox, the playwright,] came up with the idea. We were at a Christmas party. He got off the train and came to the party and told me about it. And I was like, “I will do anything you need me to do. I will read all of the books again and take copious notes, I will write down every mention of the House, anytime the Puffs are mentioned I’m writing it down… whatever you want, if you will put me in this.”
IK: Awesome! I didn’t know you were there for the inception!
EP: I was, in fact. We thought at first [that] it’ll be a fun reading we do. And then we were gonna do five shows, and that was already incredible. But we’re leaving a little under three years since our first reading. Everyone in the show is my family… it’s the coolest thing I’ve ever done.
My favorite experience [with the show] was probably when we were doing the first show at the PIT. We didn’t know what the show was going to become, and we were kinda freaking out about trying it for the first time in front of people. At the PIT, there was one bathroom for us in the hallway where the line would form. I remember going out to pee, and there were a hundred people in a line for the show… And we were like, “Oh, this is gonna be way bigger than we thought.” That was really cool, people were dressed up on the first night, and that was just so mind-blowing because I was mostly just terrified I was gonna screw it up.
IK: The fan response to Puffs has been insane; what was the most mind-blowing moment for you?
EP: The first time someone came cosplaying as someone in the show. I think the first actor to get cosplayed was Langston [Belton], when someone showed up as Oliver. That completely blew our minds. And now a fan has crocheted Jessie [Cannizzaro] a Bippy doll, and we’ve had fans come with custom-made Mac-n-Finch shirts. [There’s a mostly-offscreen romance between Ernie Mac and JFF that has a few fan-favorite moments in the show.] This one family had come to see the show many times, and they made us all these little stuffed badgers, and it was the sweetest thing.
I might be the only one who hasn’t been cosplayed actually. My costumes are, to be fair, the hardest. Madeleine [Bundy, the costume designer,] did such an awesome job with all my costumes. She found such interesting pieces, so much so that it’s very hard to replicate now that it’s going to Australia. [I’m] wearing a leather vest that we had to have custom-patterned because we liked the original so much, which fell apart because it was bought in a thrift store. So they had to remake this leather vest for me. And my Xavia coat [is something] Maddie found in a thrift store; [she] cut it up and added the feathers. I am in awe of her every moment. But my character, because [Maddie] really wanted this particular aesthetic, is a little harder to pull off. Challenge sent out to the Internet!
JAE: Anyone who cosplays as Megan is truly a joy. I always say that I may play Hamlet or Lady MacBeth one day, but no one’s coming to the theater dressed up as Lady Macbeth. But someone has taken the time to dress up as my character. And that’s the coolest thing.
IK: Now talking about the show itself, what is your favorite part of Puffs?
EP: My favorite moment is when Wayne goes, “So fuck them.” And Harry [angsting in Year 5] goes, “Fuck… them?” It rarely gets the really aggressive laughs that I believe it deserves every night, and Nick [Carrillo, who plays JFF/Zach Smith,] and I love that joke. We’re standing right behind the sliding doors at that point. Every time that line is said, I laugh – it has not gotten old for me 450 times later; I still think it’s the funniest line in the show. It delights me endlessly.
My favorite moment [of mine] is killing [redacted for spoilers – those who’ve seen it, think Firefly]. That’s a horrible thing to say. Not because I want [her] to die, I love [her]. But because, as an actor on stage at New World Stages, you can see everyone in the audience. So I get to watch the audience get very angry with me. I know how good a job we’ve done as a cast if people are very upset at that moment. That, and when [redacted for spoilers – think the one leading into King’s Cross!] dies, I’m standing on stage both times facing straight out into the audience. It’s Nick and me, so [we] get to watch the audience’s response to both of those deaths in real time. That moment, right before we do it, Nick and I look at each other, like “Okay, we’re gonna ruin everyone’s night, let’s do it!”
We’ve watched people stand up, raise their arms, shout, curse, cry… jaws drop… everything. Sometimes we get mean laughs, that’s a little disconcerting. [But] we’ve done the show well if the people have been laughing [up until then] and then they’re very upset.
I remember reading a Certain Series of Books as a child, and the number of times [Rowling] just gutted me. I think I threw the book when Hedwig died – I was so mad! Like, why would you even do that? Getting to do that to other people means that I’m part of a show that makes people care that much. I’ve been booed, I’ve been yelled at, and that means we’ve done a good job.
JAE: [My favorite part] – it changes. In the past I’ve said the end is my favorite. It’s kind of fun to see me and Langston grow up, to see our characters as adults. I don’t know what that experience is like, to watch the show and see these characters grow up seven years in 90 minutes. I like to imagine it’s kind of cool.
I used to think that, but now I don’t know. I so enjoy the moment when Oliver and I start to kindle that little love interest thing. That’s always fun, and letting it grow – I enjoy that because it gives the audience something to latch on to, and then they want to see where that goes.
IK: Talking of the romance, what are your techniques for smearing lipstick so effectively during your big kissing scene?
JAE: I reapply before that scene, putting on more lipstick. Then we go behind the door, and honestly, we have it down to a science. It’s really goofy: we’re humming along to [the song] and we’re just mushing our lips against each other.
IK: What is your favorite Easter egg in Puffs?
JAE: I think there’s one that really cracks me up, because I didn’t know how deep a cut this was until I was rereading the books. When Hannah goes, “That Sirius guy, I hear he can turn into a flowering shrub.” That’s literally one line in Book 3, where no one knows what [Sirius is] up to. That’s what [Puffs is] referencing – it’s so obscure and so specific. And Ellie is so hilarious when she does that moment.
EP: It’s a very blatant reference, but so few people get it – it delights me, and I know it delights Matt. Most people don’t realize it’s a reference, because who remembers that? Occasionally I can hear in the audience someone get it, and that’s very satisfying – they’ve read closely and often. [They,] like me, probably didn’t go outside much as a child. I got in trouble at camp as a kid, because I wanted to read the fifth book – I’m sitting outside doing it, why is it a problem? And they were like, you need to go be with other children and socialize, throw balls or something. I didn’t care, I wanted to read.
IK: Nick Carrillo always improvises his scene as Zach Smith. What’s been your favorite Zach Smith story?
JAE: That is so hard. There’s been so many. One of the last shows at the Elektra Theater, Nick somehow maneuvered to having the foam bird in his crotch. He made this whole bit about how maybe he turned his penis into a bird. He pulled down his fly and the foam bird was there! So that’s the one that comes to mind.
Jennifer Buckets is pretty legendary. It was a particularly rainy day, and the storm drains had clogged or something. So the ceiling was leaking in our theater and dripping on the stage. We paused the show for a moment [to put] buckets on the stage. There were three buckets center stage as we were doing the show. And Nick made a whole bit about how he had this girlfriend named Jennifer Buckets, that once in a while he still brings up.
EP: You know what, hold on, I’m gonna say this with all love and respect to Nick: Nick Carrillo has never read the books. [There issues a huge gasp from the interviewer.] It hit a certain point where he was out of ideas while doing Zach Smith So Jessie and I, the two biggest nerds in the cast, were like, “Talk about this, this, this.” We would give him ideas, vague suggestions about how [some] thing is weird. And we’d [explain it to] him, and he’d come up with something infinitely funnier and more brilliant because he’s a genius. But the Zach Smith bits have long been slightly a team sport in our cast.
My favorite one was secretly 27 Dresses. Because Nick and I love 27 Dresses, I bought him the DVD and I gave him a James Marsden mask (his face on a popsicle stick, a promo item from Hairspray), because our love of James Marsden is unhealthy.
While we’re going to miss Julie and Ellie a lot – and everyone should make sure to see them before they leave – the future of Puffs is looking bright because we can exclusively reveal who will be replacing them!
Taking over from Ellie in the role of Hannah Abbott and others will be Puffs’ original female swing, Anna Dart. Anna has been with the show for two years, ever since it opened Off-Broadway at the Elektra Theater. We’ve seen her go on as the Narrator, and have the ultimate confidence that she’ll be great as Hannah.
EP: I’m so excited about who’s replacing me – she’s great. We did a put-in rehearsal, where Julie and I watched, and it was really awesome. We have a certain level of ownership that we feel over these parts and the show, because we were there as it was written… it was written around and for us. It’s like my baby, and I’m giving it to someone else, but I couldn’t be more excited to give it to her because she’s so great, and has been since Day 1.
It’s a different show with a different cast, because they’re not just doing impressions of us. And thank god, because I think that’s what’s going to make the show last and grow: having all these new people bring new things to the roles. So it was just really exciting – sad, but really wonderful. I’m just excited for everyone to get to watch her to do my part, which will be her part soon.
And I think it’s always cool whenever we see a new understudy or a new swing go on. Whenever someone is in the show, once they make the part their own, it’s really hard to be like “Oh right, there are other versions of this characters out there.” And I think that’s what it’s gonna be like: there’s going to be an adjustment period of people going, “Oh right, these are different people, these are different characters now. But they’re just as fun and just as lovable and just as interesting and fun to watch!”
IK: Just as Puffy, one might say!
EP: Just as Puffy, certainly just as Puffy!
While Ellie is being replaced by a Puffs veteran, Julie will be replaced by a newcomer: Sonia Mena will be taking over as Megan Jones.
EP: She and I worked together when I was still doing marketing – I worked on a show she was cast in. She’s worked with [director Kristin McCarthy] Parker before, and I think she’s great. It’s a different Megan for sure… Julie’s Megan is so much about who Julie is. Julie is not Megan, I don’t think Julie ever went through a rebellious phase. Julie is a Brave for sure, but she’s also just a really good person, so her Megan is someone who’s not very comfortable with how Puffy she actually is. So she’s putting on all of these layers. I think that it’s going to be different, but have the same exact heart.
IK: Since you’ve been with the show for so long, how has your portrayal of the characters evolved over time?
JAE: When we came to New World Stages, we basically kept the show the same, but it was a new venue and a whole different environment. You have to play it differently. And I kind of had a little identity crisis. Megan’s this punk goth chick – am I really portraying that? Am I smiling too much? Am I really doing this justice in terms of making her different from everybody? But what I’ve come to find is: those moments where I allow myself to be silly within her among her angst, that is kind of what makes her who she is. Of course, we all know that she’s actually super gooey on the inside and cares so deeply about everything, although she would never admit that. But that’s what’s going on. So when that flickers through, it makes her more well-rounded. For a moment there, I was afraid I wasn’t getting into it enough. But having her be more layered and varied is actually what makes her work.
EP: Other than [Wayne’s Free Willy speech], Mrs. Jones has changed the most [over time]. It was really fun – mildly stressful, but ultimately very rewarding whenever it finally clicked into place in one section. What I think Matt was trying to do was create the most compelling arc for Megan. So it was fine-tuning that and figuring out how to make my presence mean the most for her. It was fun doing all those different iterations with Julie. Occasionally, we will remember old things we did – “Oh yeah, remember when that was your line?”
IK: Ellie, what about your portrayal of other characters?
EP: It’s interesting because Xavia has changed so much. Most of my teachers haven’t really changed at all since Day 1 of the reading. For me in terms of what’s changed, hopefully I got a lot better at my voices, and then I got worse again, and then I got better again. And hopefully I’ve stayed better – we’ll find out when I watch the [filmed version]. Just the thought of my face that big… is a lot. Especially considering how many dumb faces I make in the show, because I pretty much try to do Puffs with a steady stream of dumb faces or dumb noises. I’m pretty much always making a dumb face or a dumb noise on stage. Nick and I call it the “Ellie Philips School of Acting.” Do you want to make noises a human would never make? Come to the Ellie Philips School of Acting!
The first day we did the reading, the day before we were supposed to do it in front of people, Steve [Stout, who plays Ernie Mac and is a producer], emailed me and was like, “Hey, work on a Maggie Smith impression!” And I was like “Oh…huh? Sure.” So the first time I did it was not very good, because I’d never done it before. I mean, I did it in my bedroom a bunch but… yes, I’ve spent many hours on the internet watching clips of Dame Maggie Smith. And Richard Harris… watched a lot of Richard Harris.
Switching between them is fun. Steve and I make a lot of dumb noises backstage getting into the different voices. I did one matinee [when] I had not had enough coffee… I went on as the Headmaster and was in the wrong voice. I said the first words in my Transfig teacher voice and went “Oh no!” and had to drop [my voice] down. But that’s only ever happened once, and now that I’ve said that, it’s gonna happen every show until I leave. Usually it’s fun, I play around with the voices still – there are some characters for which I just do what I’m feeling on a given night, because they’re all just a delight.
Hannah is my favorite, because Hannah is me in sixth grade of middle school, before I became Megan. I was very very awkward and did not know how to deal with it. So I just talked and hoped people didn’t hate me. Which is still kind of me… Hannah is all of my anxiety in a person, which is why I love her so much. She’s just trying to figure out where to put her hands and her arms, that’s 90% of her struggle: what do I do with these? She’s so sweet. I love Hannah. No matter what mood I’m in, part of me is Hannah. I have such deep social anxiety, that she’s my soul sister.
IK: Any other bits in Puffs you particularly enjoy?
EP: [The scene between Headmaster and Harry at the end of Year 2.] It’s one of my favorite scenes, because Maddie and I love hugging. We’re the perfect height to hug each other, because her head comes to right underneath my chin. We always get a really good hug out of it, which is worth it for me.
JAE: I have my serious/Sirius joke down to a science. What’s funny about that one: either the audience laughs and gets it, or they’re like “Oh my god!” and groan. I almost catch them on the second wave, if I just wait a little bit longer, and then I’ll get a bigger laugh.
IK: Julie, in addition to portraying Megan, how has it been running the Puffs social media?
JAE: A lot of how Puffs came to be is our connection with the fans, and having people follow our journey and get to know us. So it kind of started off being a really silly thing – who of the cast is gonna be the social media captain and run the Snapchat? And they were like, “Julie, it’s you!” And I was like, “Oh my god, here we go!”
But it ended up turning into a really fun thing, just documenting us through everything. I no longer run it, but my last week on the show, I’ll be back on the Instagram and Snapchat, doing the stories again. When I was doing it, fans were messaging and commenting on the stories. People have said that they were following the Instagram before they even saw the show, which is just kind of crazy. They ended up coming to see the show because they were following all of that.
IK: What’s next for you?
JAE: You know, I‘m hoping to focus more on film and TV. That’s part of why I thought it was time to say good-bye. We’ve been doing this show nonstop for three years… three years! And even though I know that the fans thought this would last forever, I’m excited to see where the film goes. For now I’m looking forward to taking a break, truthfully, and focusing more on film and TV.
EP: I’m working on a screenplay that I’m writing, that I hopefully want to film. I want to also film some short stuff this summer, just because I’ve done a lot of stage and not a lot of film, so I would like to do more of that. But also I’m taking my mom on a vacation to Italy! I’m not leaving because I don’t love the show – I love the show and everyone in it. For me, I don’t ever want to hit a point where I don’t feel that way, and sometimes I think you need to give yourself a little time.
IK: Any closing thoughts?
JAE: I wanna thank the fans, because if it wasn’t for them… I feel like I sound like a boy band right now! But it was because of that fan buzz even when we were at the PIT, and people just being so excited about our show, and telling their friends. And it kind of built [to] where we are now. That didn’t have anything to do with money or putting things into [the show], it truly came from a love of the audience, and that’s something that I think we’ll always feel so indebted to.
EP: I’m just so grateful. I still can’t believe how lucky we are, and how much people respond and love this little show of ours. I’m excited to move on, but I’m also terribly sad about it. Which is weird because it was my choice. But I’m gonna miss everyone, gonna miss the show.
Thanks to Julie and Ellie for speaking with us, and we wish them happy trails! Personally, I would just like to thank them for giving so much to Puffs, and coming to define two very exciting new additions to the Potterverse. They will be in Puffs for two more weeks, until May 19th. Trust us, you don’t want to miss seeing them in this show – to buy tickets, go to the Puffs website. And if you can’t make it to New York City, see the filmed version through Fathom Events on May 9th and 12th.